Turkey: Viewing history from the shoreline

By Pam Neville

Trudging the ruins in 38 degree heat is tiring. Catching buses or taxis from one site to the next is uncomfortable and sticky. Compare that to sailing gently alongside the rock tombs of ancient Lycia or cruising a few metres above the sunken city of Simena, stopping at will to cool off in the azure waters of aTurkish fjord.

This is lazy woman's sightseeing, excursion without exhaustion, tourism southern Turkey style.

Turkey has more ancient Roman sites than Italy and more ancient Greek sites than Greece, a guide tells us. (Yes, we did berth at towns and villages occasionally and took expert advice on the ancient sites we were viewing.)

The guide's statistics are accurate. Literally hundreds of ancient sites lie along this stretch of Turkey called the Lycian coast, many of them barely documented. Every town has its ruins. They are protected, but there is little money for preservation or restoration.

"We" are a family group of four, fortuitously sailing with yacht-owning relatives who are spending their superannuation cruising the Mediterranean. But you don't need a private yacht. Boat hire is big business here, from small sail-yourself options to fully staffed sailing hotels - or gulets.

The south coast of Turkey is a giant theme park of antiquity. Cities built several centuries BC by people of the Lycian civilisation jostle with Greek and Roman ruins. Thirteenth-century castles of the Knights of St John share their sites with Byzantine remains.

The Lycians were especially particular about burial chambers. Their magnificent rock tombs, carved to resemble the facades of classical buildings, and their freestanding sarcophagi (stone coffins) dot the hillsides. If this is a theme park, we are on the necropolis ride, gliding through a graveyard.

We start at the marina town of Gocek near Fethiye and sail south, then east, to an area known as the Kekova roads because of its sheltered road behind the 6.5-metre long island of Kekova Adasi. Keep sailing and we'd be in Beirut in a few days, but we won't, of course, and we're not far from Cyprus, which is receiving floods of refugees from Lebanon.

Tourist numbers in Turkey are well below normal for June, July and August. Terrorism and bird flu, or the perceived threat of them, has kept people away.

Our skipper, now in his third year of European sailing, reckons this is the best cruising ground in the Mediterranean. The water is crystal clear and that deep shade of sapphire peculiar to the Med. There are plenty of sheltered anchorages, a high-priced dinner is no more than you'd pay in New Zealand, and every bay and island is a lesson in ancient history.

On Gemiler Island, Byzantine ruins are stepped along hillsides and tucked among pine trees. You can sail around the island (several times if you like) and see an entire fortified city spread out before you. Then you slip into the anchorage off a crescent bay and make a dinner booking. The only building on the hillside of this bay is a makeshift restaurant, owned by a family who return to their inland home when they are not feeding the summer sailors.

The town dock at Kalkan introduces us to a hillside town whose calm is regularly interrupted by the cry of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. Like many towns on this coast, until 1923 the sound would have been of Christian church bells. In that year, after Turkey fought and won a war against Greece, a compulsory population exchange saw Greek orthodox Christians deported to Greece and Muslims sent back to Turkey. (Read Birds Without Wings, the latest novel by Captain Corelli's Mandolin author Louis de Bernieres, to learn more of that history. Birds Without Wings is based in the town of Kayakoy, which yachties can visit by walking up the hill from Cold Water Bay, near Fethiye.) From Kalkan, we take a taxi to the biggest Lycian ruin, the ancient city of Xanthos which dates back to the eighth century BC and was mentioned in Homer's Iliad.

It was the capital of the Lycian world and famous for its inhabitants having twice in its history committed mass suicide rather than be captured by enemies - once when the Persians invaded and 500 years later when under threat from the Romans. Many of the treasures of Xanthos were taken to the British Museum in 1842. Our unofficial guide, who pops out from behind a giant column to show us around for a few lira, says hopefully "they are talking about giving them back". French archaeologists are excavating and there is still plenty to see. On the coast near Xanthos is Patara, possibly the birthplace of the Greek god Apollo. Here there is a grand amphitheatre, and nearby is a beautiful white sand beach where we spot a group of Muslim women in the surf in their latest bonnet-to-ankle swimwear.

A day's sail along the coast at Kekova, earthquakes have sunk a city, probably the ancient city of Simena, several metres under the sea, providing a business opportunity for locals in glass-bottomed boats. Opposite the island of Kekova is the hillside village of Kale Koy, which has Lycian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine ruins, including a castle, a necropolis, a theatre, and a bathhouse. Lack of road access has protected Kale Koy from the ravages of tourism, although it's busy with day-tripper charter boats from the city of Myra to the east. Family-run restaurants with jetties for yachts, edge the shore.

Among the houses which piggy-back up the hill, we buy hand-embroidered Turkish cottons, rugs and jewellery, all for a song.

There are many spots like Kale Koy which can be reached only by boat. An added bonus is that you don't bump into 'pond life', as some embarrassed Brits call their package tour compatriots. Like Spain, this part of Turkey has had an influx of English looking for familiar home comforts. We pass though Calis, a town developed for the British. All signs are in English, there are English pubs, Irish pubs, fish and chip shops and curry houses. Posh Brits call the bed and breakfasts of Calis 'B and Vs', for beer and vomit. Reportedly, the resort town of Hisaronu is even worse. Do the locals mind? Not really, one tells us.

"Twenty years ago people in this town were so poor you could be killed for a packet of cigarettes. Now they are earning a living."

The bible for yachties in Turkey is written by New Zealander Rod Heikell. His books are full of vital sailing information and better than most guide books. While lamenting some of the coastal development, he points out that great swathes of the coast remain untouched, accessible only to yachties.

- Herald on Sunday

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